The state legislature is considering a number of directions for criminal justice reform. The purpose of this series of posts is to create a repository of relevant background data and to surface that data for vetting. Comments adding facts and new data sources will be especially appreciated.
Basic Crime and Incarceration Statistics
- Incarceration in Massachusetts started to climb after crime surged.
- The Massachusetts Legislature regularly enacts criminal penalty increases.
- Legislative penalty changes contributed only modestly to the prison population run-up.
- Growth in the lifer population has helped keep the prison population high.
- Violent offenses account for over half of the prison population.
- House of correction trends have broadly paralleled state prison trends.
- The house of correction population is less violent than the state prison population.
- Massachusetts has a lower incarceration rate than other states.
- Both crime and incarceration are concentrated in poverty areas.
- Incarceration rates vary by race/ethnicity.
- Drug offenses account for a higher fraction of Hispanic incarcerations.
My personal takeaways from these basic statistics are:
- Incarceration rates have risen sharply over the past few decades and remain troublingly high, especially in communities of poverty and color.
- Legislative policy changes have probably not been the primary drivers of that incarceration growth.
- To reduce the footprint of the criminal justice system in communities of poverty and color, drug sentencing policy changes will help, but we also need to look more broadly at the whole correctional process (and also keep working on fundamentals like education, jobs and housing).
Statistics about Mandatory Minimums for Drug Offenses
- Most drug arrests do not result in conviction, much less incarceration.
- Among drug incarcerations, mandatories of 5+ years account for only 8% of person-years sentenced.
- Progress already made in 2012 reduces the potential impact of repealing mandatories.
- The average sentence impact of repealing mandatories is likely to be modest.
- School zone charges are dropped in over 95% of cases.
- Mandatory sentences disproportionately impact minorities.
My personal takeaways from these statistics on mandatory minimums are:
- Repealing the drug mandatories will have very modest impact on the overall incarceration rate in Massachusetts — this reinforces the previous conclusion that we need a broader agenda.
- The disproportionate impact of drug charges on minorities and the risk of arbitrary application, especially as to the school zone (and perhaps the 2d offense charge), do make repeal important anyway.